Melissa Moore Stens, Flagler County Judge Candidate: The Live Interview
FlaglerLive | July 28, 2012
Melissa Moore Stens is one of seven candidates for Flagler County Judge in the Aug. 14 primary election.
The county judge election is a non-partisan race: all registered voters in Flagler County are eligible to cast a ballot in this case–whether Democratic, Republican, Independent or from a minor party. You may cast a vote regardless of the district, the town or the subdivision you live in. If one of the seven candidates wins more than 50 percent of the vote, that candidate will be the winner, and will replace County Judge Sharon Atack, who is resigning at year’s end.
If none of the candidates wins with 50 percent or more of the vote, then the top two vote-getters will head to a run-off in the Nov. 6 general election.
FlaglerLive submitted 14 identical questions to the seven candidates, who replied in writing, with the understanding that some follow-up questions may be asked, and that all exchanges would be on the record. Follow-up questions, when necessary, appear in italics, and may be awaiting answers.
A style note: some lawyers are in the habit of capitalizing quite a few words that would not normally be capitalized in journalistic style. The capitalizations and similarly, specifically legal stylistic quirks have been preserved as a reflection of each attorney’s style.
The Questions in Summary: Quick Links
- Law school
- Disciplinary issues
- Fair treatment: pro se defendants
- Determining witness credibility
- Is a cop’s word more trustworthy than a defendant’s?
- Knowledge of civil law
- Technology and docket efficiency
- Religion and interpretation of law
- Legal role model
- For love of law or money?
- Your prejudices
- Your temperament
- Judging your opponents
- Judging yourself
Place and Date of Birth: Miami, Fla., May 20, 1974.
Current job: Attorney and owner, Williams & Moore, P.A. Primary areas of practice are criminal defense and family law matters.
Years practicing law: 13 years and 10 months as of July 24, 2012
Self-Disclosure Statement with the Florida Bar: Available here.
University of Florida College of Law, with Honors. My GPA was 3.16, rank 9, and I passed the Florida Bar exam the first time I took it.
3. Many of your defendants in county court will be representing themselves (pro se). What is your strategy for dealing with pro se defendants who will be facing polished attorneys? How will you ensure that they will be treated as fairly, and what allowances will you make for their self-representation, if any?
There are certain days where pro se litigants will be in Court, and typically there are other days reserved for cases with attorneys only. On the days with pro se litigants, I believe it would be beneficial to give an overview of the process for the litigants, so that they have an awareness of the upcoming structure of procedure. However, Judges are unable to give legal advice to litigants, and therefore it becomes difficult to answer questions asked by a pro se litigant in many circumstances. If elected, I would treat everyone in my courtroom fairly and with respect. Pro se litigants will have a full opportunity to be heard and to present their defenses and legal arguments to the Court.
4. As a judge, one of your most important tasks will be to determine the credibility of witnesses. What factors will you rely on to determine credibility? How do you see the difference between a witness in dreadlocks and tattoos as opposed to one in an Armani suit?
In the Florida Rules of Criminal Procedure, there are several guidelines set forth for juries in assessing the credibility of witnesses. Those factors are whether the witness had the opportunity to see and know the things about which they testified; whether the witness seemed to have an accurate memory; whether the witness was honest and straightforward in answering the attorneys’ questions; whether the witness had some interest in how the case should be decided; whether the witness’ testimony agreed with the other evidence and testimony in the case; whether the witness was offered or received any money, preferred treatment, or other benefit to testify; whether any pressure or threat had been used against the witness to influence his or her testimony; whether the witness made an inconsistent statement with their testimony given in court; whether the witness has been previously convicted of a crime; and whether it was proven that the general reputation for truthfulness of the witness was proven to be bad. These are the factors that I would look to in determining the credibility of all persons coming before the Court. If elected, I will never assess or remove credibility simply based upon race, creed, color, gender, religion, or any other factor protected by law.
Written standards are clear and hopefully prevail, but is a judge always immune from stereotyping?
5. Along the same lines, it is often the experience of defendants in court that between the word of a cop and the word of a suspect, in he-said-she-said cases, the cops’ word will generally prevail. Explain first why you think that is, and explain to what extent, if any, a cops’ word would carry more weight in your court room than a suspect’s.
As set forth above in the answer to question #4, the credibility of witnesses shall be determined by the trier of fact, sometimes the Court and other times the Jury. Many cases do come down to the testimony of one or more officers versus the testimony of a suspect. Again, the same factors set forth in question #4 has to apply to these cases. Often, the officer’s testimony is consistent with one another and consistent with the evidence, whereas the suspect testimony may not be consistent with one or both of those. This is why I believe cases often are found in favor of the law enforcement officer’s version rather than the suspect’s version. I certainly cannot prejudge any case, person, or testimony in advance of hearing such. Therefore, each case, person, and all testimony will be heard, digested, and analyzed as it is presented to me, if I am so elected.
6. Understanding that judges do not—cannot—possibly read all their cases but rely substantially on lawyers’ arguments, and that you’ll face a considerable number of civil cases, how much civil law do you know? What areas of civil law have you practiced?
I have had my own law firm for over 11 years now. During that time, I have handled mostly criminal and family law matters. In the realm of family law, I have handled hundreds of cases, including divorces, custody cases, modifications, injunctions for protection against domestic violence, repeat violence, and sexual violence. I have also been a contract attorney for the Department of Revenue (also known as DOR) child support enforcement for 11 years, which equates to thousands of cases per year. This docket handles the signing of all DOR cases. Therefore, I am singularly and uniquely qualified in knowing what the legal standard is for all cases, including petitions for paternity, support, modifications, contempt hearings, writ issuance, petitions for disestablishment of paternity, DNA requests, driver’s license revocation actions, bank levy’s, and the many other enforcement actions that DOR uses to obtain compliance. In addition, when dealing with family law cases, I have often encountered cases that have related issues of landlord-tenant matters, bankruptcy matters, and the like. I have also handled a few small claims actions, including lawsuits initiated by credit card entities against the cardholder, which also is handled by this docket. Therefore, I believe that I have a broad base of knowledge which will transition well to this County Court position.
Access to technology can make the court system more efficient and operate smoother. However, not all persons have access to technology, especially some of the pro se litigants referenced in question #4. Therefore, I do believe that utilizing the JACS system (Judicial Automated Calendaring System, or online calendaring) will be beneficial. As a current private practitioner, I have personally had cases where I have looked onto other Judge’s JACS calendars to obtain hearing time, and the earliest available dates are 3-4 months away, even for 15 minute hearings. In that circumstance, the JACS system is not helpful, and my staff ends up calling the Judge’s office anyway. So while the online scheduling can help, it isn’t always the best solution. If elected, I will use the JACS system, and have a link to it from my website, while having a disclaimer that allows people to call in if earlier time is needed or if they are unable to use the system.
Most people have a moral and/or religious code by which they conduct themselves. These principles, morals, and beliefs guide us through our everyday life. However, they are separate and distinct from the law.
Pursuant to Canon 7 of the Code of Judicial Conduct, I feel that answering this question could appear to support or oppose political issues; I therefore refrain from answering this question.
10. Attorneys, as in so many professions in today’s dismal economy, are hurting for work. Not many can pull in the guaranteed $134,280 a year you’ll be making as a county judge. Understanding that you’re obviously doing this for the good of your community and for the most noble motives possible, you’re also human, you likely have or will have a family, and it’s no secret or sin that some of you are running to land a steady salary. To what extent is that guaranteed income driving your desire to be a county judge?
The guaranteed income is not a main factor in my desire for this position. While financial security is something that each of us strive for, my desire for this position was born when I was a law student. It has been my goal to become a Judge one day, and I have fashioned my career in such a way to hopefully achieve that goal. I believe that being a Judge is one of the pinnacles of the legal profession, carrying with it both a tremendous burden and responsibility. It should not be approached lightly, or for the wrong reasons. Those attorneys whom have excelled in their careers, whom have been recognized for their achievements, and whom have followed the rules governing the Florida Bar, Florida Statute, Florida Constitution, and the United States Constitution should be considered for the position. This should not be a contest based upon popularity. It should be about the attorneys qualifications, achievements, growth in their chosen area of law, experience in different areas, and dedication to the practice of law.
I would certainly have a potential conflict for any case in which I have previously represented one of the litigants. Other than that situation, I feel I would be fair and impartial to all persons coming before me, if elected.
Having been an attorney for almost 14 years now, I have had many situations of intense and contentious litigation. I believe that I am known by opposing attorneys to be respectful and courteous, even in the depths of hostile litigation. Family law is one area of law where people are highly emotional and litigation can be particularly intense and personal. In my family law litigation practice, I make a point to zealously represent my client. However, I also make an equally strong point to explain to my clients that they alone have the ability to control their behavior and should move past the point of being emotional to a point of being able to properly communicate with someone. I believe that advice and guidance shows that I firmly believe that each person should communicate effectively and with respect to all others. I would say my emotional hot buttons revolve around someone personally attacking myself or my family. Beyond that, I feel I can have an intellectual discussion with others without bringing disrespect or emotion into it. I do not consider myself to have a large ego.
13. You’re part of a small community of lawyers who know each other, have likely faced each other in court or seen each other in action while waiting your turn, have been hearing and speaking about each other through the professional grapevine, and, being lawyers, likely have strong opinions about each other. In other words you know more about each other, especially regarding relevant matters in play here, than any member of the press or public could know. Enlighten us: give us, in your words and assessments, a brief synopsis of each of your opponents’ capabilities, strengths and foibles as you understand them, and whether, in your view, each is qualified to be a county judge.
Again, in order to conform to Canon 7 of the Code of Judicial Conduct, I refrain from answering this question.
14. Do the same for yourself: Dispensing with such matters as heredity and lengths of stay in Flagler County—which, we hope you agree, are as irrelevant to the law as skin color and culinary tastes—what makes you the best qualified for this position?
There are two things that I believe make me the most qualified. Being Board Certified in Criminal Trial Law sets me apart as an expert in criminal trial law, which constitutes approximately two-thirds of this docket. I am the only candidate who holds any type of Board Certification, and my certification happens to be in a main area of this position’s docket. Secondly, I am the only candidate who has been a prosecutor, a defense attorney, and owns a private law firm and business locally. Having the perspective of owning a local business allows me to have a connection with the citizens and their interaction with the law and our local court system. I have practiced in front of most Judges in our Circuit because of my extensive private practice. This also allows me to understand the challenges that private attorneys encounter with respect to scheduling, conflicts, and related matters on a daily basis; an attorney who has only worked for the State their entire career has not had this experience and therefore does not have this perspective. Understanding what both prosecutors and defense attorneys are facing in their daily litigation practice would allow me to empathize and effectively manage any problems that could come up. For these reasons, I am the most qualified candidate for this County Court Judicial position.